Last year I went to visit Berlin for the first time over a long weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city that’s still so haunted by the after effects of war. Certainly there is more to this thriving city which is dynamic and fascinating in many ways but walking through the streets there are evident battle scars around every corner. Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that this would be the case because it was turned into a battlefield during WWII and then became a city literally divided by the Cold War. Given these facts it’d be virtually impossible to write about Berlin in the late 20th century without referring to the reverberating effects of these traumas.

Ben Fergusson rightly does so in both his first novel “The Spring of Kasper Meier” which describes the city soon after it was jointly occupied by the Allied powers and in his new novel “An Honest Man” which takes place in the time immediately preceding The Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989. But these stories are filled with so many twists and surprises that they give a fascinating new perspective on this vibrant capital. He captures the lives of ordinary citizens in this shifting political landscape and focuses specifically on the lives of gay men during these periods. “An Honest Man” is centred around the life of Ralf, a teenager in Berlin with an English mother and German father. When Ralf encounters a Turkish man named Osman at a swimming pool he becomes embroiled in both a passionate love affair and a mysterious tale of espionage which completely upturns his life. It’s an utterly gripping tale of self-discovery and intrigue.

What’s often so striking reading about the lives of young people in such a politically contentious area is that the reality of its accompany tensions have become so completely normalised. Of course it seems normal to them because it’s all they’ve ever known. So for Ralf and his close group of friends who spend their summer going to the pool or watching arthouse films thrust upon them by Ralf’s cultured friend Stefan the fact of the wall’s presence is something glancingly referred to as they go about their lives preparing to go to university or pursuing their studious fascination with the natural world. The politics of it colour everything about their lives but doesn’t really impact them – until Ralf gets involved in spying on someone who may or may not be a Soviet informant. I admire how Fergusson evokes their lives fully capturing the sensory experience of this time and place.

Osman or “Oz” introduces Ralf to the music of Turkish folk singer Müzeyyen Senar. Here she sings "Kime Kin Ettin de"

There have been many coming of age novels written about gay men discovering their sexuality. But I appreciate how Fergusson gives a different spin describing the contoured dynamics of Ralf’s desires. He finds himself drawn to men yet he’s had a very close emotional and sexual relationship with his girlfriend Maike who is a fascinating character in her own right. He also has a strong platonic friendship with Stefan. But when Ralf finds a sexual connection with Osman the author evocatively describes the all-consuming freedom and heated passion of their relationship. It immediately overturns all the homophobic sentiments Ralf had previously expressed for a newfound acceptance of himself. Of course, this liberation doesn’t instantly make him into an entirely good person. The fact that Ralf is something of a dick (as his actions are frequently described throughout the novel) adds to the way he feels fully rounded and, like most teenagers, often more preoccupied with his own interests rather than the feelings of those closest to him.

I recall watching news footage of The Berlin Wall’s destruction when I was a child in 1989 and I remember wondering what it must have been like for all those people who finally didn’t have to live with this immense physical and political barrier any longer. So it was thrilling when the reality of this event is described in a climatic scene towards the end of the novel showing all the chaos and release of emotion which accompanied this new freedom of movement. “An Honest Man” achieves what’s best about historical fiction as it makes you reconsider how the dramatic events surrounding a large-scale political upheaval had different effects upon the lives of so many people who found themselves at the centre of it. And it does so with a story that’s both thrilling and filled with sensual delights.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesBen Fergusson
2 CommentsPost a comment

How do ordinary people survive in their native city after losing a war? The familiar civilization they've known all their lives has crumbled and must slowly be rebuilt brick by brick. People either give into despair or use their ingenuity to adapt and survive. In the aftermath of WWII, Berlin was jointly occupied by the Allied powers. American, British, French and Soviet forces patrol the city. Food is scarce, many buildings are partially-demolished and a thriving black market arises where cigarettes take the place of currency. Kasper Meier is a man in his early 50s. His age is somewhat immaterial as the effects of war have prematurely aged everyone: “In Berlin, a face full of lines carved out by dirt, fear and exhaustion didn’t tell you anything about someone’s age anymore.” Kasper has learned to navigate this devastated city landscape by bartering to obtain tins of ham or whatever foodstuff he can obtain in order to feed himself and his elderly father. He tries to keep a low profile and he has a good reason for doing so because he’s gay. Homosexuality was still criminalized after the fall of the Nazis and even those who were “gay Holocaust” survivors faced being re-imprisoned if they continued to engage in homosexual activity and their names were kept on a list of sex offenders. But Kasper has obtained a reputation for being well-connected and able to obtain information. This is when he’s approached by a mysterious woman named Eva who needs his help to find a British pilot. From this encounter Kasper is unwittingly drawn into a complex and suspenseful plot of revenge and murder.

1945 Berlin is a city rife with suspicion and paranoia. It’s haunted by the devastating consequences that war has brought to it and the people left behind (both German citizens and soldiers in the Allied forces) painfully mourn the loss of their loved ones and the life they led before. The end of winter doesn’t bring with it the hope of renewal. Rather it’s a city where “the warmth of spring had begun, in places, to bring back the smell of buried death that had plagued the city the previous summer – a sweet rotten fragrance carried on the searching gusts of April wind.” This season which traditionally brings with it the promise of new birth instead awakens the spectre of all that was lost. A group of skilfully written characters are plagued by difficult painful memories and the bleak reality of a ruined city. The most powerful character is Kasper himself who forges ahead despite images of his lost lover Phillip reverberating in his mind. He shies from talking about the past or the reason why he was scarred during the war (losing one of his eyes). Whenever he is asked about his eye he deflects the question by producing a comic answer such as: “Hindenburg did it with his Pickelhaube when I pulled his moustache.” He carefully continues to hide his sexuality from his elderly father and fears being exposed if he doesn’t assist Eva and her enigmatic employer. As the story progresses, Eva’s tale takes on a greater degree of complexity and the full terror of her difficult past comes out in a highly dramatic scene. Here “her hatred overwhelmed her and she let it come and she enjoyed it like biting down on an aching tooth.” The intensity with which this scene is composed is made all the more powerful from the outflow of bitter feelings which have been carefully concealed by her character for so long.

  “As the sky darkened, the rough castellations at the tops of the buildings became silhouettes and, if the destruction below them wasn’t so total, they might have appeared like melancholy ruins in the haze of a Casper David Friedrich painting.”  
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“As the sky darkened, the rough castellations at the tops of the buildings became silhouettes and, if the destruction below them wasn’t so total, they might have appeared like melancholy ruins in the haze of a Casper David Friedrich painting.”

Before the war, Kaspar used to run a bar which from small descriptions I gather was a sort of low-key version of Christopher Isherwood’s famous cabaret portrayed in “Goodbye to Berlin.” The story in this novel follows a similarly colourful cast of characters who have been trodden down, but still retain their flair. It’s interesting coming to this novel after having read Audrey Magee’s novel “The Undertaking” earlier this year. Before reading either of these books I can’t remember having encountered any stories of post-war German life (Magee’s book partly follows a woman’s story throughout the war and after). Something both novels deal with is the rape of women in the city following the occupation from Allied forces. In his novel, Fergusson explores how rape isn’t a side-effect of war, but an active instrument used in the systematic way a nation is defeated. But for all the misery, betrayal and horror that comes with war, “The Spring of Kasper Meier” shows the surprising resilience of individuals as well as their ability to believe in the good of humanity and rely on each other for support after achieving a hard-won trust. Ben Fergusson has produced a really impressive debut novel that deserves to be read.